Home Grown

Home Grown

Confessions of a Biscuit Eater

A hair-raising adventure with Mama

By Cynthia Adams

My Mama sprang immediately to mind as a friend described a Triad maven he met while doing work for designer Otto Zenke. “She was always dressed bridge-ready. And she was so rich she had a hairdresser do her hair daily!” 

Hairdressers everywhere should observe November 5 — the day she died — National Hair Day, versus October 1. (As hair care company NuMe declared in 2017, according to my editor.)

No matter the fluctuating fortunes, calamities or dramadies within our family, a few things were certain: The sun would rise right alongside a pan of Mama’s biscuits, and so would her closer-to-God hair.

Thy will and Mama’s hair would be done. Weekly. (Southerners know what “done” means . . . and in this case, it has nothing to do with biscuits.)

Her biscuit making, however, was instinctual after years of practice. Mama practically made them in her sleep, wearing a negligee, satin mules and a cocktail ring, which grew lumpy with dough as she kneaded. She slapped the pan in the oven, sipping a cup of black coffee before cracking eggs as the grits burbled on the stove.

Every day.

I lost my appetite for those pillows of Crisco, flour and milk in my early youth after learning from my new friend, Rocky, that toast was much cooler up north. 

Rocky also touted frozen pies — anathema to my kin. When Judy, the daughter of our (adored) bookmobile driver, echoed Rocky’s preferences, I swore off biscuits, too.

Mama was fit to be tied when my 11-year-old self requested toast following our no-biscuit pact. 

When Rocky moved away, I ate my words and rejoined the legion of biscuit eaters. 

Mama’s passion for biscuits eventually waned, but hairdos were sacrosanct.

Her salon was called “Barbara’s.” Envision the salon in Steel Magnolias — except Barbara’s was actually at Barbara’s house. It was obvious when Barbara was working because the carport sheltered her patrons’ land yachts — Lincolns, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles. 

For hair to be considered truly “done,” it had to be impervious to wind, rain or natural disaster — minus wildfires — while made highly flammable with a shellacking of hairspray. Once done, women marched out of Barbara’s with helmet-like coiffures, teased and steeled. Fortified.

When older, her children grown, Mama wanted more. By her 70s, her salon visits were a twice-a-week habit.

Then Mama left my dad, Barbara and Hell’s Half-Acre behind, establishing a tight-as-ticks bond with a hairdressing duo in Norwood, NC — which even involved trips together. 

Mama achieved Nirvana vacationing with her hairdressers. (“Perry and Terry freshened my hair up every day when we were in Disney World!” she said blissfully.)

When she eventually remarried and moved to Greensboro, Mama struggled to find the level of style — teased high and hardened off — she demanded.

She tried salon after salon, eventually discovering Wayne. It became a happy pairing. When I needed to find her, I could go straight to his salon, spot her Lincoln outside and find Wayne spraying with zeal, a plastic shield at her face.

“He knows what my hair needs,” she would explain. “So many hairdressers do not.”

She also grasped what Jim, her husband, needed. Given his thing for blondes, Mama’s dark tresses grew steadily lighter. 

After Jim’s death, she moved nearer to my older sister.

The hairdresser hunt was on once more.

This proved more stressful than my (pragmatic) sister anticipated. They cycled through scores of beauticians as Mama’s health declined. Now using a cane, and soon, a walker, she began having falls, yet determinedly kept appointments. 

When Mama fell completely out of the Lincoln at the curb in front of her newest salon, the kindly hairdresser was recruited to visit her twice weekly.

This, too, grew challenging as Mama grew unable to stand at a basin long enough for shampooing.

Only in recent months of no bleaching had I discovered what her natural color actually was — still dark at the back though gray at the front. Shampooing Mama’s hair in the shower one day, I announced I’d “do” her hair. 

Glancing at mine — merely blown dry — she raggedly exhaled.

“Well . . .” Her hands fluttered in surrender. Attempting to twine her gray hair around a curling iron, I burned both her neck and my hand, and cussed. Mama looked exasperated as I held a cold cloth to her neck.

And started laughing.

“I’m having trouble, but it’s all because of your cowlick,” I lied sweatily.

“You don’t know diddly squat about hair or curling irons. Get that hairspray,” she giggled, indicating a large can of Big Sexy Hair. I sprayed her recalcitrant curls till wet, shakily trying to coax them into Modestly Compliant Hair.

When I burned us both again, Mama retorted, “Well, you’re no Wayne! Just get me my lipstick.” Big Sexy Hair couldn’t save me.

She pursed her lips as I swiped them with red — her perennial favorite — and reached for blusher, dusting her porcelain-pale face before swiping her lashes with globs of mascara, lending a jolting Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane effect. Mama was unrecognizable.

With a very light squirt of her cologne — Angel — I hurriedly wheeled her away from the mirror.

“Mama, why don’t I follow up that success by making a pan of biscuits?”

“Huh! Good thing I’m wearing my Depends,” she retorted drily. We giggled together; Mom, tremulous but plucky. “We can work on the hair later,” she added, and my heart dropped to my kneecaps.  OH

Cynthia Adam is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Tales to Tell

The journey of a lifetime

By Anne Blythe

Kelley Shinn spent a long afternoon in a bar with poet Eric Trethewey some years back and told him a story that made him grab her by the shoulders and implore her to write it down.

Shinn had recently returned to the United States from a years-long trip abroad, a nomadic journey she organized to bring attention to the predicament of landmine survivors. As noble an undertaking as that might be, it was not the typical goodwill mission highlighting the plight of amputees whose limbs were blown off in war-torn lands.

A single mother at the time, Shinn — who has prosthetic legs below her knees — was still recovering from her own physical and emotional wounds when she embarked on her global expedition in a tricked-out Land Rover with her whip-smart 3-year-old, Celie. The Wounds That Bind Us, her story chronicling that journey, went through many renditions before becoming the memoir published this year by West Virginia University Press.

Shinn tried a series of short stories first. Next she rewrote it as a novel. “Then I had an agent from New York that was interested in it,” Shinn, now an Ocracoke resident, recounted at a reading at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. “And she said, ‘You say it’s based on autobiography. Give me a percentage.’ So I wrote her back and said at this point, it’s 75 percent true. She goes, ‘Here’s my problem. It’s too unbelievable for fiction. You need to rewrite it as memoir.’”

The narrative that came together over the next decade is a phenomenal adventure story that will pull you to the edge of your seat while marveling at Shinn’s candor, steely backbone, vulnerability and wisdom. She takes readers on this emotional ride with self-deprecating humor, artistic prose and a welcome hopefulness that oozes throughout the pages. There are times you want to sit her down, stop her from doing what she’s about to do and tell her the danger’s not worth it — think climbing onto wreckage of a bombed-out bridge in Bosnia high above the Neretva River to get the perfect photo. After all, there’s Celie to think about, the child she brought into the world after 52 hours of labor. Her daughter is her sidekick, a worldly little girl who loves her “to the moon and back.” Who will respond “I love you the whole universe” if Shinn succumbs to unnecessary risks?

Overwhelmingly, readers are more likely to be cheering for Shinn, engrossed in a story that keeps them hungering for the next escapade while also hoping that any one of the many interesting people she encounters along the way can keep her in check.

Shinn was a promising cross-country runner at 16 years old, when her body and life were forever changed by a rare form of bacterial meningitis initially misdiagnosed as flu. Although that’s not how she starts the memoir, she flashes back to that time in the hospital while thinking about landmine victims in Bosnia.

“I’ve got more wires running around and through me than an early desktop computer,” Shinn writes. “A month ago my coach was talking to me about scholarships for cross-country. Lord in heaven, how I wish I could jump off this bed right now and run, just run through the Metroparks, down the city sidewalks, run until my heart pounds in my chest, until the sweat breaks out all over my body and evaporates into thin air.”

There is a sense throughout The Wounds That Bind Us that Shinn is running. Running, running and running. She’s racing away from the pains and sorrows of her childhood and abusive relationships while, at the same time, jogging slowly toward healing and enlightenment. Shinn scratches at deep wounds from being put up for adoption by her birth mother and raised by an adoptive mother who beat her “in a quick rage, with a stick, a belt or a hand.” She explores the mindset that pushed her toward doomed romantic relationships like the one with a scheming first husband who glommed onto her after the well-publicized settlement of her malpractice lawsuit.

This is not a woe-is-me tell-all, though.

Shinn describes unforgettable scenes such as the overnight stay in a brothel with Celie; the off-road thrill rides on steep, rocky terrains; and the beautiful landscapes of Greece. Her stories are filled with memorable characters, from cab drivers to their neighbors in the United Kingdom; from her Greek classics professor turned travel companion to the soldiers, farmers and others with bodies forever altered by landmines; from the many people who care for Celie; all the way to Athena, the Land Rover (a trusted character itself) that does the transporting from England to Serbia, Bosnia and Greece.

It is well worth it to take the journey with Shinn, “that’s two Ns and no shins,” she jokes. She’s funny, daredevilish but relatable. That poet at the bar, a man she would have a relationship and son with, was right. Shinn’s story needed to be written.   OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Art of the State

Art of the State

Earthen Vessels

From Seagrove to the world beyond, Ben Owen III shares his pottery

By Liza Roberts

The work of Ben Owen III is earthen and practical, but also brightly hued and sculptural. It fits in a hand for morning coffee, but it’s also the lofty centerpiece of elegant spaces across the world. From the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho to the Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo to The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, where his sculptural vessels fill spotlit niches and his handmade plates grace every table, Owen’s art provides beauty and function.

Pottery is one of the oldest human inventions, going back to pre-Neolithic times. Earth into clay, clay into pots, pots into fire, vessels out. Also unchanged: all hands on deck to get it done. It takes a team to keep a wood-fired kiln’s flames stoked and blazing 24 hours a day for days on end. Like farmers raising a barn, potters fire a kiln together because they need each other. It’s what they do.

Owen was born to this life, born with Seagrove clay beneath his feet. His father and grandfather, Ben Owen Sr. and Ben Owen Jr., built the foundations for Seagrove’s modern pottery community; before them, as early as the late 1700s, their forefathers arrived from England, making and selling clay vessels to early settlers. Owen III works today on the same site his grandfather did.

“He was a great teacher and a great mentor for me,” Owen says, “showing me the fundamentals, building all those skills.” Starting at the age of 9, Owen went out to his grandfather’s studio every day to make pots. During these sessions, his grandfather taught Owen technique and aesthetics as well as principles: how important it was to challenge oneself, to learn from mistakes, to greet change with enthusiasm, to eschew mediocrity. To “never sell his seconds.”

“I’m continually trying to find ways to refine the technique and my process,” Owen says. “How can I make the piece even better than I did last time?”

That commitment has taken his work not only all over the world but has paved the way for its inclusion in museum collections, including the Smithsonian Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, and in private collections. His work, in its various manifestations, has a timelessness about it, even when glazed in crystalline turquoise or lilypad green.

“I’m always experimenting,” he says. “A lot of people know us for our red glaze, but in recent years, I’ve been making glazes from nature. Recreating things I’ve seen hiking with my son . . . looking at textures, lichen on a stone, moss on a tree. It’s interesting to think, Could I make a glaze that would create that effect?”

Some of Owen’s pieces are finished in electric or gas-fired kilns, others in his wood-fired groundhog kiln. To witness Owen firing this kiln — a gourd-shaped, 30-foot-long structure dug partway down into the earth, hence the name — is to witness a multi-day, group massive effort, only accomplished a few times a year.

One recent morning at his studio in Seagrove, Owen was busy completing a 5-foot-tall, 400-pound, bottle-shaped vessel for the Amanyara resort in Turks & Caicos, one of nine large pieces commissioned by the property. The fire in the kiln had been going for 12 hours, and it would be another 36 before it was done. Owen slid a few slats of wood into a slot in the side of the chamber, turning to laugh at a joke from his friend Stan Simmons, a fellow potter there to help keep the fire going at temperatures reaching 2,350 degrees Fahrenheit. Another potter, Fred Johnston, was also on hand. Both men had pots of their own in the kiln. They waited.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said, gesturing to his kiln, explaining how he fits 400 pots inside. Part of it is tactical: Some glazes do well high up, some pots need to be closer to the fire. Some of it is logistical. “Right now,” Owen says, watching flames shoot out of a blowhole-like chimney pipe, “Right now it’s heating up fast. Right now, there’s more fuel than there is oxygen.”

Potters can’t always predict what will emerge from the fire, what that day’s particular combination of clay and heat, minerals and weather will produce. “Colors, or finishes on pots, are almost like sunsets,” Owen says. “Each day, it’s a little different, and depending on what’s present — just as the clouds, or the temperature, the atmosphere all affect the sunset, our glazes can react the same way. We learn to accept that. We try to control these things to the best of our ability, but we have to remind ourselves that our materials are constantly changing. And sometimes it can be a nice surprise.”

A few steps from this kiln, in the late 1990s, Owen built his own studio, right behind the one where his grandfather taught him. The newer spot is spacious, with separate workstations for different kinds of clay. There are pots in various stages of completion, one already 4 feet tall. When it’s complete, this pot will be glazed an earthy blue, weigh about 250 pounds, and stand in the entry of a home in Greensboro.

“In an era of instant gratification, where people can go to the big box stores or a mall for most of their daily needs, we can offer something different,” Owen says. “Especially when they can meet the maker, learn a little bit more about the process, and what makes a potter tick, and their particular style, and why they use that technique. The work becomes part of the fellowship.”

Owen pictures his blue vessel in place, mentions the conversations he’s had with the collectors who’ve commissioned the piece. He welcomes the chance to work closely with the people who collect his work — some of whom were also collectors of his grandfather’s work —  and to get to know them, just as he does with visitors to his region and his studio. The role of ambassador is another he embraces.

“When you can find a way to develop a relationship with an individual customer or just people coming out to visit the area,” he says, “that gives us a springboard to tell people more about what the past has done, and what we’ve been able to build on over the last several generations.”

He’s happy to go farther back, too, 280 or 300 million years or so, back to when the region was covered in the volcanic ash that gave birth to the clay he loves, and he’s happy to bring it back home to now, and to his legacy. “I just count my blessings that we’ve been able to support our family through the making of earthen vessels,” he says. “Really, the end product is how it is received by the people who use it.”  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Pleasures of Life Dept.

Pleasures of Life Dept.​


Dim Sum-day at Christmas

A hometown guy tests the hot trend of eating Chinese food on Christmas Day

By David Claude Bailey

Now that our two girls are grown-ups and have homes (and Christmas trees) of their own, we empty nesters almost religiously endeavor to spend Christmas morning any place but home — in Savannah, in Florida, in France, in Spain visiting our older daughter.

And then, last November, Anne said, “Let’s not go anywhere this year. Let’s just stay home.”

And so it came to pass that on Christmas morning we find ourselves with our younger daughter, Alice, and her fellow serious eater, Evan, at arguably Greensboro’s most authentic Chinese restaurant, Hometown Delicious.

My idea was to eat in the company of others not entirely focused on little children giggling with delight around a Christmas tree. A few years ago while eating dim sum in Chinatown with Lori, a New York City friend and cookbook author, I heard all about how crowded Big Apple Chinese restaurants are on Christmas day with dim sum eaters.

Literally translated, dim sum means “close to the heart” and encompasses a wide range of hors d’oeuvres, mostly plump dumplings served in steaming bamboo baskets. Once back home, I did a little research. “Going out for dim sum on Christmas Day started as a New York Jewish tradition, spread across America and then caught on across the world,” says the Financial Times.

Getting back to our family summit in November, I proclaim, “Let’s feast on dim sum Christmas morning with Alice and Evan.” They readily agree, though neither had heard about the hot trend of eating Chinese on Christmas morning. I call several Chinese restaurants around town and find that most plan to be closed. One insists that I make a reservation to guarantee a table, which I don’t want to do without consulting my fellow dim (con)sum’ers. Evan, who doesn’t like crowds any more than I do, agrees with me that we ought to eat early to avoid the rush. I have visions of ordering deep-fried sesame balls stuffed with red bean paste only to have the waitress point to another table and say, “They got the last ones.”

So at 11 a.m. sharp, we’re sitting in the parking lot as the lights come on inside Hometown Delicious, and a waitress opens the door with a big smile and a warm welcome. Soon we’re sipping cups of piping-hot wulong tea, a traditional complement to dim sum. I’m glad we’re with family and not in snowy Canada, where I’d suggested going. Or Beirut, Lebanon, where, decades ago, I spent a cold and edgy Christmas on assignment.

To our delight, we have the restaurant totally to ourselves, and, for the first time in months, we are blissfully surrounded by the complete absence of Christmas music.

The menu, however, is almost dim-sumless. Still, we start our feast with an order of  pan-fried dumplings, pillowy and stuffed with a savory combination of cabbage and garlicky pork. They are, in fact, delicious, whether they’re hometown or not. I am already one happy camper.

To us, half of the fun of eating Chinese food is sharing all the various dishes. Alice orders eggplant in red sauce as well as spicy mapo tofu. Evan orders pine nuts with corn. Corn? Anne orders the dry-fried green beans. A meat lover, I retaliate by ordering hearty braised duck with beer in an iron pot and a dish the waitress tells us is a specialty of the chef, fish-flavored shredded pork. Anne raises her eyebrows.

As soon as the shiny, purple chunks of eggplant arrive, literally still sizzling, visions of dim sum dancing like sugar plums disappear from our heads. The plump eggplant dissolves, a cloud on our palates, savory with a sauce that leaves you licking your fork. “Oh, my!” Anne says. Alice glows with satisfaction.

“It is cooked in the style of my hometown of  Luoyang,” the chef, Jianjun Li, tells us later. (Luoyang is in east-central China in the Henan province — not to be confused with the Hunan, Hainan or Yunnan provinces.) The fish-flavored pork turns out to be a slightly sweet-and-sour stir fry with shreds of pork, slivers of peppers, bamboo shoots, carrots and the same sort of mushrooms found in hot-and-sour soup. “No fish — flavor of fish from the sauce,” Li says. As it swims into our mouths, Evan and I are ecstatic. 

We all love the sweet, creamy-fresh corn, stir-fried and amped up with pan-roasted pine nuts. Origin? “Pine nuts with corn is a traditional dish from northeast China,” Li tells us. The dry-fried green beans are from Szechuan, as is the duck cooked in beer, which is my favorite dish. The spicy mapo tofu is, in fact, appropriately described and from Hunan.

Not from his hometown? “These are from my customers’ hometowns,” Li tells us, “so they feel at home in my restaurant.”

Which is where, on this sunny morning, we all feel perfectly at home — in Hometown Delicious.

No need to go to Canada or Florida, we decide over a last cup of tea. Home is wherever your family gathers and eats food cooked by someone who knows how to make people feel happy and at home. It also helps that most of Li’s employees are family members.

As we’re leaving, our waitress says, “Merry Christmas.”

I’ve heard this dozens of times in previous weeks, but not with such total sincerity.

“Merry Christmas to you and all of yours,” I reply.

As we’re stretching our legs and saying our goodbyes outside, I give my daughter a holiday hug and whisper in her ear, “Next year in New York City?”  OH

O.Henry’s contributing editor David Claude Bailey fell in love with Chinese cooking 55 years ago when a UNCG faculty member’s wife gifted a wok and a Chinese cookbook to him and his own wife, Anne.



Wintering Waterbirds

Ducks, geese and swans, oh my!

By Susan Campbell

The arrival of cold weather in central North Carolina also means the arrival of waterfowl. Our local ponds and lakes have been documented to be the winter home to more than two dozen different species of ducks, geese and swans. Over the years, as water features both large and small have been added to the landscape, the diversity of waterfowl has increased significantly. Although we are all familiar with our local mallards and Canada geese, a variety of aquatic birds frequent our area from November through March.

Certainly the most abundant and widespread species is the ring-necked duck, flocks of which can be seen diving for aquatic invertebrate prey in shallow ponds and coves. The males have iridescent blue heads, black sides and gray backs. They get their name from the indistinct rusty ring at the base of their necks. The females, as with all of the true duck species, are quite nondescript. They are light brown all over and, like the males, have a grayish blue bill with a white band around it.

The most noticeable of our wintering waterfowl would be the buffleheads. They form small groups that dive into deeper water, feeding on vegetation and invertebrates. The males have a bright white hood and body with iridescent dark green back, face and neck. They also sport bright orange legs and feet, which they will flash during confrontations. The females of this species are also drab, mainly brown with the only contrast being a small white cheek patch. Interestingly, bufflehead is the one species of migratory duck that actually mates for life. This is generally a trait found only in the largest of waterfowl: swans and geese.

There are several types of aquatic birds similar to ducks that can be identified if one can get a good look, which usually requires binoculars. Common loons can occasionally be seen diving for fish on larger lakes in winter, and even more so during spring and fall migration. Their size and shape are quite distinctive (as is their yodeling song which, sadly, they do not tend to sing while they are here).

Be aware that we have another visitor that can be confused with loons: the double-crested cormorant. This bird is actually not a duck at all but is (along with its cousin the anhinga) more closely related to seabirds, e.g. boobies and gannets. It is a very proficient diver with a sharply serrated bill adapted for catching fish. It is not uncommon to see cormorants in their “drying” pose. Their feathers are not as waterproof as those of diving ducks, so they only enter water to feed and bathe. Most of their time is spent sitting on a dock or some sort of perch in order to dry out.

Two other species of waterbird can be found regularly at this time of year: pied-billed grebes and American coots. Pied-billed grebes are the smallest of the swimmers we see in winter, with light brown plumage, short thick bills and bright white bottoms. Surprisingly, they are very active swimmers. They can chase down small fish in just about any depth of water. In some years, American coots can be quite abundant. These black, stocky birds with white bills are scavengers, feeding mainly in aquatic vegetation. They can make short dives but are too buoyant to remain submerged for more than a few seconds. Given their long legs and well-developed toes, they are also adept at foraging on foot. You may see them feeding on grasses along the edge of larger bodies of water or even on the edge of golf course water hazards.  OH

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.

Wandering Billy

Wandering Billy

What a Wander-ful World

There’s no place like home for the holiday memories

By Billy Ingram

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”     – Douglas Adams

I hope you will indulge me in sharing a few Ingram family holiday customs sprinkled with a couple standalone memories that I recall from growing up here in Greensboro, likely not very different from your own yuletide rituals.

Samson’s Little Helper

Every December, my father bought by the caseload bottles of an obscure hometown original, Samson’s Sauce, from his golfing buddy, Gurney Boren. Dad’s clients very much looked forward to it because that robust, slightly-spicy steak and burger garnish was crafted in minute batches and unavailable in just any store. Since the 1960s, Boren had been brewing his father’s secret recipe in a garage behind his home at 1116 Parish St., along the southern edge of Irving Park. In the mid-1970s, as I recall, Gurney’s love for a sauce of a more spirited variety began to affect production. To make sure that his friends and colleagues didn’t go without, Dad took it upon himself to raise a few cups with Gurney inside that concrete outbuilding while bottling up as much as possible. At least that was the story Mom got after Dad would arrive home, er, sauced himself. While still relatively unheralded, Samson’s Sauce is more popular than ever today. Find it in local Bestway markets, but be sure to look for the comical label and avoid the Town & Country version. Does it taste the same as it did 50 years ago? Yep, you bet . . . and that modest garage where it all started still stands.

Mother’s Gift Book

My mom was all about Christmas, so much so she kept a loose-leaf notebook that served as her voluminous gift list, replete with notations on what she’d gifted everyone over the years. Just to be safe in case she forgot someone, she always set aside a number of presents with blank tags such as cheese straws from Carolyn Todd’s, which, she insisted, carried the only proper cheese straws. It was her favorite shop and had been at least since I was a toddler. I remember fondly that the last bill she received before passing away in January 2014 was for her charge account Christmas purchases at Carolyn Todd’s.

Oyster Stew

First thing Christmas morning, Dad would prepare a boiling pot of buttery oyster stew (not to be confused with chowder) from his mother’s recipe. Consisting of shucked oysters, evaporated milk, whole milk, butter, pepper, and topped with oyster saltines, it was a favorite of my brother and sister, who each devoured it and continue this tradition. I never did partake.


After relocating to Springfield to accept a senior position at Mass Mutual, cousin Berk Ingram gifted my parents a yearly subscription to Yankee magazine. We assumed it was a joke that this Southern boy — raised in the country like my Dad — would send us a monthly digest about Yankees. Although we were always amazed at its gorgeous illustrated covers, I don’t think a single copy was ever cracked opened. Because I’m an archivist at heart, I saved a couple of issues. But it wasn’t until decades later that I actually read a copy of Yankee only to discover it was a truly excellent magazine, one of the finest publications of that era, and still is today. Turns out, O.Henry’s founding father, Jim Dodson, wrote for Yankee in the 1980s and ’90s.

Making “Trash”

Before pre-made Chex Mix was introduced in 1985, folks used to concoct their own party mix by combining the three Chex cereals (Rice, Wheat and Corn) with pretzels and whatever else they wanted to toss in (as long as it wasn’t sweet), then bake it. My grandmother’s recipe for what we called “Trash” was a little more involved. Besides the cereals and pretzel sticks, she tossed in peanuts, Cheerios and cashews. Melt a stick of salted butter with 2 tablespoons of Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire sauce in a roasting pan; add the dry ingredients using a spatula to turn everything over and over until fully coated; then stick that pan into a 200 degree preheated oven for an hour, mixing it all around every 15 minutes.

Turkey Dinner

I spent a single Christmas in Greensboro in the 1980s. By that time my grandmother and older relatives had passed away and the cousins we had over for dinner in years previous now had families of their own. In 1987, although it was a bit pricey and the old man was kind of a cheapskate, Dad sprung for Greensboro Country Club’s complete turkey dinner for a family of five to-go, with all the fixings, including those wonderful walnut sweet rolls their chef made for dessert. Unfortunately, we cut into the turkey and discovered it was raw in the middle, so we popped it into the oven until it was fully cooked. No harm, no fowl. Then again, these were the days when you thawed the bird for a few hours on the kitchen counter. Other families weren’t so lucky and became stricken with food poisoning. It wasn’t the club’s fault: A catering firm supplied the meals and provided a full refund for everyone. Dad couldn’t have been merrier!

Green Hill Cemetery

In the evening on Christmas Day, pretty much the entire family would congregate at Mom and Dad’s place to share stories about what had transpired over the course of what was always an abundant and somewhat magical time. At some point, we’d all pile into cars and head over to Green Hill to pay our respects to beloved, never-forgotten family members. One year the graveyard was padlocked early and we were stuck on the wrong side of the gates — inside not outside! Fortunately, this was in the mid-1990s, when cell phones were just beginning to come into general use. One of us actually had one handy so we were sprung by the GPD pretty quickly.

A Christmas Miracle?

Every holiday, it seems I’m the recipient of what I call a “Christmas miracle.” Nothing major, some unexpected cash when I expected to be broke, hearing one of only two Christmas songs recorded after the early-sixties that I actually enjoy (“Father Christmas” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer and “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses), the rarer-by-the-year white Christmases. Like I said, no big deal, just something that sweetens the season.

Then there was this: The first Christmas Day after my mom died, I was taking a stroll around the neighborhood. It was frigid that afternoon and I thought to myself, “If Mother was alive, she’d be telling me to wear a hat because all of your body heat escapes from your head.” She insisted that this was true, but I’m not so sure. As I was passing the Blandwood Mansion, something caught my eye. Lying atop the lush, green lawn was a brand-new, red knitted cap, price tag still attached. Not something I’d ordinarily wear, but definitely an item my mother would have purchased for me.

We all accept there’s no going home again. The closest we’ll come is at the holiday season, when cherished memories and treasures both great and small may allow for a lingering glow from candles lit long ago.  OH

Billy Ingram wishes each and every one of you the happiest holiday season possible.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

The Man, the Myth, the Legendary Santa

A Q&A with the real Kris Kringle

This fall, as Santa prepped his office space for another busy holiday season, he decided it was time for a new-to-him desk, something with an old-world vibe to suit his classic style. Turns out, Santa shops Facebook Marketplace and, as mutual luck would have it, scored the perfect leather-inlaid vintage desk here in Greensboro at the home of our founding editor, Jim Dodson, who put us in touch with the big guy. Since he wasn’t yet in a holly-jolly holi-craze, Santa took a moment to chat with us. We’re going to jump right into the burning questions that everyone wants to know:

OH: Honestly, what holiday treat should we be leaving you on the hearth?

S: I can’t pick out one! Chocolate chip cookies are an all-time favorite. Snickerdoodles are always good, too.

OH: You need to stay in shape to be able to make it around the world so fast, up and down chimneys. What is your own workout regimen like?

S: Ho, ho, ho, ho, besides milk and cookies? Well, I’m not your typical Santa Claus. Nowadays St. Nick is looking out for his health and well-being. I do vigorous training — cardiovascular, weight lifting — along with milk and cookies.

OH: Favorite non-sweet meal?

S: I’d have to say, going back to my German lineage, it would probably be Jaegerschnitzel.

OH: Off season, what do you and Mrs. Claus like to do?

S: We go to the beach. We were in Florida not too long ago. We try to go incognito.

OH: What does your bathing suit look like?

S: I just wear my regular red and white, suspenders every once in a while and my Hawaiian shirt.

OH: When you drop coal in a stocking, do you feel sad or are you secretly snickering?

S: See, there’s a bad rap about being given coal. Being given coal is an opportunity to improve yourself. If you use coal and compress it, what does it become?

OH: A diamond?

S: Very good. So when we give an individual coal, we’re showing them, “You have potential to become better. Accept this coal in the spirit it was given because I see something better inside your heart.”

OH: We’re going to move on to questions submitted by kids: “Does the Polar Express still exist and can I ride it? I lost my ticket.”

S: Yes, the Polar Express does exist and you can ride on it. [Santa’s no slouch. He whipped out his snow-white iPhone 15-plus and shared this URL:  raileventsinc.com/polar-express-train-ride/locations]

OH: How did you get famous?

S: Wow, I guess I can thank Coca-Cola for that back in the 1930s.

OH: How do you make Christmas nightgowns?

S: I leave that up to Mrs. Claus and all the lady elves.

OH: How do the reindeer fly?

S: Magic reindeer corn.

OH: How is it that you never die?

S: I have a son and I’m getting him ready. When I take my final sleigh ride then the Santa Claus job will be passed onto him.

OH: Where do you store all the presents?

S: We have them stored in different locations in different places. Just like Amazon, we have our hubs and locations.

OH: Who are all the Santas at the stores?

S: We have a brotherhood. There’s a worldwide Santa Claus network. There’s anywhere between 6,000 and 10,000 Santa Clauses worldwide that portray me and help me do my job. And we have conference calls and Zoom.

There you have it. Santa’s a modern guy who uses social media, technology, distribution centers, works out, but still enjoys a classic chocolate chip cookie. Hitting the beach after the holidays? Keep your eyes peeled for a svelte, white-bearded man in red-and-white swimming trunks.  OH

Got more questions? Visit mjsanta.com or find him on instagram @mj_santaclaus to set up your own Zoom session or in-person meeting.

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

Moon Shadow

A look at the bright side of solar eclipses

By Maria Johnson

His answer was so Gen Z.

When I texted our younger son to ask what it was like to witness October’s solar eclipse in Oregon, he responded with a photo of him crouching and pointing, mouth agape, to the cloudy sky.

His picture, a nod to a popular meme, was a joke. Under Oregon’s seemingly forever overcast dome, he couldn’t see squat. And even though he was in the swath where the moon’s shadow would be the darkest, the skies didn’t seem much dimmer than usual.

Here on the East Coast, we understood from news reports the shade would be almost imperceptible, but the main event should be visible. Technically called an annular eclipse, as opposed to a total eclipse, the moon would glide between us and the sun, appearing to punch a hole in ol’ Sol and making our life-giving star look like a ring of fire for a few minutes.

To get a good look we’d probably need a solar-filtered telescope, so our plan was to drive to Guilford Technical Community College’s Jamestown campus and take a gander through the lenses set up in a parking lot under the guidance of Tom English, director of the school’s Cline Observatory.

In case you don’t know, one of the coolest things about living here is that you can stargaze, for free, through the observatory’s big telescope on most Friday nights with Tom and friends.

The sights  — magnified to nearly 200 times what the unaided eye can see — range from close-ups of the Earth’s moon to planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, to the Andromeda galaxy. For big sky doings, like solar eclipses, the observatory folks set up smaller telescopes in open areas. Alas, the October eclipse was mostly a bust here, too. Clouds and rain obscured the view. But on another gloomy day, we got luckier.

It was a little more than six years ago, August 21, 2017, when my husband and I drove to the mountain town of Brevard to experience a total eclipse — one where the moon is so close to the earth it blots out the sun entirely in the same way holding up your hand to block the sun works better if your hand is closer to your face.

It was a Monday. The workday was going to be relatively slow and we were empty-nesters, so why settle for mere dimness in Greensboro when we could drive three hours and be plunged into total darkness at midday? Sounded like a good time. And it was.

Brevard, known for its small liberal-arts college and a world-class summer music festival, was giddy that day. People lined up for free solar-viewing glasses (limit one per person). Some businesses hawked eclipse merch.

We bought two gray T-shirts at the office of the local newspaper. One of its designers had come up with a brilliant graphic — a flaming ring of white, representing the sun’s corona, anchored by a white squirrel, the town’s mascot, sitting at the bottom of the loop.

We grabbed a sandwich at a local cafe, then walked a few blocks and unfolded our camp chairs inside the handsome stone gates of Brevard College, which welcomed the celestial seekers.

On the vast lawn, Frisbees flew, soccer balls bounced. Someone played a banjo as we all  waited, not knowing if our efforts would be rewarded.

The sky had pulled a soft gray shawl of clouds over her shoulder.

It was a laughable situation. Humans can predict, to the second, when an eclipse will occur, but if it’s cloudy, game over for a high-resolution view.

There was nothing to do but chill.

The crowd thickened.

The clouds thinned.

Shortly before the eclipse was due, the sun popped out.

It was a small miracle, one that happens almost every day, but in this context it felt personal. The sun and moon would come through for us.

We felt the moon’s shadow gradually, in the way you feel the temperature dip when storm clouds roll in.

Deeper we slid into darkness.

It was about 1:30 in the afternoon.

The automatic streetlights came on.

The night birds chirped.

The crickets, tricked into thinking the day was done, struck up a ringing chant.

Through cardboard glasses with lenses of sun-safe black film, we watched the disc of the moon slide in front of the sun until only the faintest solar halo, the sun’s corona, was visible.

The crowd fell silent, and the sound of clicking cell phone cameras competed with the crickets.

This was big. Bigger than us. Way bigger.

Then something remarkable  happened — everyone broke out in spontaneous applause and woo-hoos. A communal standing ovation. It reminded me of watching the sunset at Pass-a-Grille Beach in Florida, where the disappearance of a neon orange ball into the Gulf of Mexico is punctuated by cheers and the ringing of a brass bell on the beach.

Only this was not a practiced response. There was no tradition to be observed. It felt like a visceral gesture of human bonding and gratitude.

Brava you, Mama Earth.

Thanks for making us feel small. In a good way.

On April 8, 2024, another total solar eclipse will be visible in this country. The Path of Totality will arc from Texas to Maine. I hope to be in the dark somewhere.

Tom English of GTCC will be watching, too, either from campus or from somewhere in Ohio, the area nearest Greensboro for lights-out. He hopes to experience the darkness in person, with other people, as he did with a group of students and colleagues who traveled to South Carolina to stand in the moon’s shadow in 2017.

“It’s something you want to do in your life,” he says, noting that the next total eclipses over the U.S. will occur in the 2040s.

Nothing, he says, replaces being right there.

“Have you been to the Grand Canyon? Have you seen pictures of the Grand Canyon. It’s not the same, is it? The whole world is transformed, and if you’re not standing in it, there’s no way to know.”  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at ohenrymaria@gmail.com. For GTCC’s celestial viewing schedule, go to @gtccastro on X (formerly Twitter) or to the school’s website, gtcc.edu/observatory, which includes a page on upcoming eclipses.

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Tea Leaf Astrologer


(November 22 – December 21)

A little heat goes a long way. When provoked — unwittingly or otherwise — your particular brand of fire belongs on the Scoville scale, ambushing the offender with fits of nausea, abdominal pain and/or any number of unmentionable side effects. Here’s the thing: They’re not out to get you, nor are they trying to hold you back. This month, new opportunities beckon. Best not to let the petty stuff distract you from seeing them.

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Batten down the hatches.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Mind what’s on the back burner.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

Just text them back already.

Aries (March 21 – April 19) 

Try fluffing your pillow.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

Salt will enhance the flavor.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

It’s time to clean the mirror.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22) 

What if the obstacle is the greatest blessing?

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Consider adding “sun lamp” to your wish list.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

You’ll get there when you get there.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Abstain from the deviled eggs.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

You must believe it to achieve it.   OH

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla.

Sazerac December 2023

Sazerac December 2023

Unsolicited Advice

Our fav cold weather activity is staying inside under a weighted blanket. But in the spirit of celebrating the winter solstice, we’re tossing off the covers and steppin’ out.

  1. According to our partner, we’re always skating on thin ice. May as well test that skill outside on thick ice at Piedmont Winterfest located in LeBauer Park. Don’t miss Tuesday night curling. Just one question — foam or hot rollers?
  2. Heart-pumping exercise always warms us up. How about rushing through local shops while carrying heavy bags? You — and your credit card — will get a workout .
  3. Hot cocoa anyone? Hit up one of Greensboro’s many coffee spots for a mug of steaming milk chocolate with whipped cream. Into chocolate mint? Forget the peppermint crumbles and bring on a hot shot of peppermint schnapps instead.
  4. We’re often told to take a hike when offering friendly advice, and now’s the perfect time. The local trails are sure to be a little less people-y. Just you and nature. And maybe a black bear who’s prepping for winter, too. NBD — bring a trailmate you can outrun.
  5. And the activity we’re looking forward to most? Walking back into our warm home and sending a note of thanks to the heavens for Alice Parker, who patented the first central heating system. Siri, put the fireplace screensaver on TV — we need a little winter ambience.

Last Call: O.Henry Essay Contest

Several years ago, readers responded enthusiastically to a contest challenging them to write an essay entitled “My Life in a Thousand Words.” Last year, we revived our challenge with a theme of “The Year That Changed Everything.” And this year, in honor of our namesake, who was known as one of America’s most popular  — and highest-paid during his time — short story writers, we’re thrilled to announce that the 2023 O.Henry Essay Contest is all about “The Kindness of Strangers.”

We’ve all had a moment in our lives when someone we didn’t know stopped without hesitation to lend a hand. And now, we want to hear your story — whether you were on the receiving or giving end.

Of course, there are some rules:

  • Submit no more than 1,000 words in conventional printed form. Essays over 1,000 will be shredded and used in our office hamster’s cage.
  • Deadline to enter is December 24, 2023.
  • Top three winners will be contacted via email and will be printed in a spring 2024 issue.
  • Email entries to cassie@ohenrymag.com

We can’t wait to hear the clickety-clack of keyboards across the Triad as you write your stories — stories that are sure to remind us of all the goodness that exists in the world.

— Cassie Bustamante, editor

Window to the Past

Photograph © Carol W. Martin/Greensboro History Museum Collection

“What kind of tree did you say this was, Betty?”

“It’s a shrub. Just keep stringing it with tinsel and no one will know.”

(Coeds at Greensboro College decorate a Christmas tree in the 1940s.)

Just One Thing

The artist ransome, the full name he goes by, writes on his website (ransomeart.com), “My artwork centers on my African-American lineage, which is traced back to sharecroppers of the American South who migrated to Northern cities along the East Coast.” Born in Rich Square, a tiny town east of Roanoke Rapids, he was raised by his grandmother before moving to New Jersey as part of the Great Migration of African Americans seeking broader economic and educational opportunities. With a B.F.A. from Pratt Institute and an M.F.A. from Lesley University, ransome writes, “My pictorial narratives are personal, yet the symbols I use are universal and interplay with larger social, racial, ancestral, economic and political histories that inform our nation to this day.” His work, “Come Sunday, You Can’t Hide,” 2022, is a collage on exhibit as part of Art on Paper, Weatherspoon’s biennial show that features artists “who demonstrate the breadth of ways in which one can deploy the humble medium of paper to extraordinary ends.”

Sage Gardener

One of my favorite memories of Christmases past is anticipating what gardening tool Wofford Malphrus, my late father-in-law, was going to give me. In the spirit of his generosity and thoughtfulness, the Sage Gardener polled the elite testing unit of gardeners at O.Henry and came up with a list of sugarplums for the naughtiest and nicest gardeners on your list.

Editor Cassie Bustamante was the first to answer: “It’s cheap, fits in a stocking and is a miracle worker on hardworking hands: Badger Balm,” she writes. “I grab mine at Deep Roots. And don’t worry. Not made from real badgers.” In fact, it was “created by Badger Bill to soothe his rough carpenter’s hands during a fierce New England winter,” says the website: www.badgerbalm.com. “It’s packed with antioxidant-rich ingredients like beeswax and extra virgin olive oil and formulated with wintergreen oil.” 

O.Henry’s garden writer, Ross Howell Jr., suggests a packet of wildflower seeds from American Meadows, Shelburne, Vermont. Half an hour after typing in www.americanmeadows.com, the idea of a gift for someone else wilted and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted the pollinator wildflower mix, the butterfly-and-hummingbird mix, the Indian blanket seeds or love-lies-bleeding. Plus, I discovered that some people actually BUY and PLANT morning glory seeds. Since I have the greatest abundance of them, maybe I should gift them instead of American Meadows’ carefully curated seeds?

“Life’s Funny,” Maria Johnson reminds us every month, but there’s no funny business about manure from this backyard gardener. She swears by Daddy Pete’s Plant Pleaser’s line of products, deposited right here in North Carolina. Maria gets hers at Guilford Garden Center. Read all about it at www.daddypetes.com/story, as in, “Something that seems to be spent or dead to one, brings life to another. Thus it is with Daddy Pete’s Cow Manure and the belief that we help you grow.” Can you say, Pete and repeat?

Photographer and world traveler Lynn Donovan says, “For the movers and shapers of the gardening world, Felco Pruning Shears are the bomb.” Made in Switzerland and extremely rugged, this could be the last pair of shears you buy. After all, they are guaranteed for life. Cutting to the point, my question always is, my life or the product’s life?

My daughter is itching to tell you about Tecnu. Got poison ivy or oak in your yard or garden? (Of course you do.) Tecnu is a specially formulated soap that washes off urushiol, the sticky stuff that makes you look leprous and drives you nuts. The sooner you apply Tecnu, the better it works, but you’ve got up to eight hours! “Don’t be fooled by the power of urushiol!” says the website, teclabsinc.com/product/tecnu-original-outdoor-skin-cleanser. “The resin from poison ivy is incredibly potent and lasts for months, even years on certain items.” I can confirm that, as on car seats.

Me? According to the Farmer’s Almanac, this winter may be colder than usual. I suggest you curl up on the couch with Beautiful Madness: One Man’s Journey Through Other People’s Gardens by no less than Jim Dodson. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Read about exotic day lilies and stolen cuttings from a Founding Father’s shrubbery. Then hang out with Jim as he himself hangs perilously from a limb on the side of a cliff akin to Mount Crumpit in search of rare Southern African plants: www.jamesdodsonauthor.com/beautiful-madness.

Let’s give the last word to Cynthia Adams. And no, she doesn’t draw from her mother’s or father’s gardening experience on the ranchette where she grew up, Hell’s Half-Acre, though she does turn to the theme of pain. “I swear by Willow Balm, a topical painkiller in a tube.” Natureswillow.com/products/willow-balm-pain-relieving-cream, though she gets hers at Tractor Supply. “I carry it with me and use it so often, Jim Dodson once accused me of eating it on toast for breakfast.” Since it contains white willow bark extract, menthol, camphor, eucalyptus oil and geranium oil, we don’t recommend regular consumption, but, says Cindy, “When I’ve overdone repotting, moving heavy pots, digging, this stuff IS the balm. My doc likes it, too.” In no time, that black-and-blue thumb will be green. 
        David Claude Bailey